The Associated Press called the Arizona governor’s race for Democrat Katie Hobbs on Tuesday, signaling a defeat for GOP candidate Kari Lake. Exit polls showed that Hobbs carried voters ages 18-29 with 71% of the vote, while only 29% voted for Lake – a central reason for the Democratic victory. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “The Power of the Youth Vote,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the evolving American political discourse over young voters, from the Wide Awake movement of 1860, to rhetoric surrounding the “virgin vote,” to the long battle for the 26th Amendment. Youth political influence was particularly central to the 1992 presidential election, when candidate Bill Clinton’s engagement with MTV crescendoed toward a triumphant inaugural ball.
On June 16th, 1992, MTV aired “Choose or Lose: Facing the Future with Bill Clinton,” a 90-minute “young voters’ forum” with the then-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
“Choose or Lose” was closely associated with “Rock the Vote,” a progressive voter registration founded in 1990 by Virgin Records America Co-Chairman Jeff Ayeroff. Ayeroff’s main boogeyman for the youth was the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a consortium of concerned, politically-connected parents – including then-Senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper – who in a series of contentious congressional hearings pushed through the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label. MTV carried Rock the Vote promotional videos by celebrities tying the free speech concerns surrounding PMRC to youth voting. Rock the Vote was getting real results, registering 25,000 voters during the Lollapalooza music festival in 1991.
Arguably the most discussed of the spots came from Madonna. While draped in an American flag and flanked by shirtless backup dancers, the pop star rapped, among other things, “Dr. King, Malcolm X, freedom of speech is as good as sex.” Other promos between 1990 and 1992 included rapper LL Cool J (“How weird do things have to get before you register and vote?”), a vaguely avant-garde display by actors and then-beaus Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey, Jr. (“Art is not produced in a vacuum. Beauty cannot be regulated by the state”), and a particularly raunchy offering – referencing the much-maligned “Piss Christ” controversy of 1989 – from Aerosmith (“The freedom to use bodily fluids as art supplies”).
“Choose or Lose,” however, was a decided escalation of MTV’s forays into electoral politics. The program was hosted by MTV politics reporter Tabitha Soren and CNN anchor Catherine Crier. Soren, then 24, first came to prominence for appearing in the Beastie Boys’ iconic 1987 video for “(You Gotta) Fight for the Right (to Party)” while an undergrad at NYU. After college, she worked as a politics reporter for an ABC affiliate in Burlington, Vermont. Shortly after Soren joined MTV in 1991, she convinced the news division heads to cover the 1992 presidential campaign like – as she told the press – “real reporters.”
Soren’s experiment began in earnest during the New Hampshire primary. Former (and future) California Governor Jerry Brown swapped his suit for a turtleneck and flannel for his interview with Soren. Arch-conservative Pat Buchanan said, “I hope you aren’t going to ask me about any of that hard-rock music because I can tell you right now I don’t like it.”
Once Clinton sewed up the nomination, he particularly embraced MTV. From the start of his June “Choose or Loose” forum – recorded at a West Hollywood studio in front of 200 18-to-24-year-old voters – he affably beat back tough questions from young people. The concerned queries touched on a variety of hot-button campaign issues, from his controversial condemnation of rapper Sista Souljah’s comments on race, to his support for a parental notification clause in Arkansas’ abortion laws, to his perspective on third-party candidate and billionaire Ross Perot’s focus on reducing the federal deficit.
Clinton revealed his favorite painter was El Greco, that he was a fan of smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G, and – in a moment that received particular attention – that he thought New York Governor Mario Cuomo “would make a great Supreme Court Justice.”
The appearance, which came only two weeks after Clinton’s now-legendary saxophone performance on the Arsenio Hall Show, struck some liberal columnists as a futile gesture. Syndicated political columnist and then-50-year-old Ellen Goodman offered particular gloom about the forum: “It seemed to be another indication that the baby boom generation is getting older without taking over. Every four years, we hear that this time the largest demographic group in America will send a leader from its generation to the White House. They will vote for their own. But it doesn’t happen.”
The youth, however, were more enthusiastic. In the Los Angeles Times, however, UCLA Senior Christine Hagstrom argued in an op-ed that Clinton’s appearance “was the highlight of the campaign.” Hagstrom was impressed by Clinton’s candor on economic issues in particular and argued that the “alliance of high-tech entertainment and earnest political inquiry shows that a true democratic conscience can emerge in the most unexpected of places.” Hagstrom ended with a call to arms for her fellow young voters: “Now is the time to drop the cynicism, jump out off the couch, get out of the living room and grab on to the best chance that you get.”
The appearance also decidedly separated Clinton from his main challenger, President George H.W. Bush, who outrightly dismissed MTV. While speaking to employees at an oil company in Northern California two days after Clinton’s appearance, Bush suggested he simply was not up for engaging with the MTV generation directly: “I think in a campaign year you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I am not going to be out there, kind of being a teenybopper at 68; I just can’t do it.”
As the campaign barreled forth, Bush continued to deride MTV. At a Houston fundraising dinner on October 8th, Bush highlighted that the children’s magazine Weekly Reader found that American schoolchildren preferred him by a margin of 16%. Bush, in a moment of brevity amid an increasingly bitter campaign, cut Clinton for his MTV attention: “Let Governor Clinton take his saxophone and go after the MTV vote – we’ll tear him apart on Sesame Street.”
On October 23rd, during a Miami television news Q&A, Bush responded to a query on why he had not appeared on the network by saying, “I’m not much of a mod MTV man,” leading to liberal smirks over the use of a decidedly outdated adjective to describe MTV’s decidedly postmodern aesthetic.
On October 31st, however, days before the election and trailing in the polls, both Bush and Perot – who had also resisted calls to appear on the network – finally relented, agreeing to appear in pre-taped segments.
Bush met Soren on the caboose platform of his campaign train. The exchange quickly turned testy. Soren asked the President about the GOP’s platform supporting abstinence, and Bush – who generally appeared extremely unamused – responded, “Well, I’m a little concerned about 13-year-old pregnancies, maybe you’re not.” When Soren tried to intervene, Bush snapped, “Can I finish, please?”
In his clip, Perot excoriated drug users as “a burden to society” and “selfish,” while he spiritedly discouraged sexual freedom: “Stop irresponsible sex…Just remember every time you start thinking about it that Ross said you’re not a rabbit.″
The awkward late-stage Bush and Perot attempts at youth engagement likely did not help their cases. On Election Day, November 3rd, 1992, 11 million 18-24-year-old voters hit the polls, up from 8 million in 1988 and the highest since the 1972 contest between Nixon and George McGovern. Clinton picked up 46% of the youth vote to Bush’s 31%.
MTV’s role in Clinton’s rise made the wider media establishment pay attention. In December 1992, 27-year-old Jeff Zucker – the eventual CNN President who was then a NBC News executive – offered Soren a monthly spot on the Today Show.
The incoming Clinton presidency and MTV also expanded their collaboration. Tom Freston, the network’s co-founder and Chairman, attended Clinton’s December 1992 two-day economic conference in Little Rock alongside the nation’s business leaders.
And MTV got a spot at the vaunted inaugural balls on the night of Clinton’s January 20th, 1993 inauguration. The MTV Inaugural Ball took over one floor of the Washington Convention Center and drew massive hype. The dress code – unlike the stodgy, more established balls – was “creative black tie.”
“It’s a license to do a lot of different things…to be as liberal and carefree or as funky in dress as you like,” Kip O’Neill, a Washington attorney who represented Viacom, MTV’s parent company, told the Los Angeles Times a week before the Ball. O’Neill’s father, Tip, had served as the feisty Democratic Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987.
As the Ball approached, MTV was overwhelmed by requests for invites from the Hollywood elite. Executive Vice President Sara Levinson bragged, “We’ve been getting calls from Scorcese, De Niro.”
The affair, hosted by SNL alum and shock jock Dennis Miller, broadcast in full on the network. Miller opened his monologue on a triumphant note: “Finally, finally, finally, one of our guys is driving the car.” He then took a couple of pot shots at Bush (“I’ll miss you President Nero…I mean, Bush!”), and even offered some edgy barbs at Clinton (“Maybe the Prez will stop in for a spotlight dance with Sistah Souljah”).
As Miller was making a joke about the U.S. nuclear arsenal being jury-rigged to the stop cord of Clinton’s campaign bus, the President and First Lady suddenly appeared – their first ball of the night – and took the microphone. “I think everybody here knows that MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton-Gore victory,” the President said.
Then came the music. The close-harmony girl group En Vogue sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” slickly segueing into their hit single “Free Your Mind”: “Free your mind / And the rest will follow / Be colorblind / Don’t be so shallow.”
Alternative rock group 10,000 Maniacs, who Clinton said was his daughter Chelsea’s favorite band, performed a Clinton-ode cover of Lulu’s 1967 ballad “To Sir, With Love” with R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe on vocals.
The Eagles’ Don Henley offered Bob Dylan’s anthemic “The Times They Are a-Changin.”
And Clinton’s brother Roger even delivered a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
In between the musical numbers, MTV reporters Kurt Loder and Karen “Duff” Duffy interviewed ebullient celebrities. Duff captured the excitement of the transition during a brief interview with Risky Business actress Rebecca de Mornay.
“I mean, this is the president of the United States, who’s one of us,” De Mornay gushed. “He’s turned on to MTV. He’s turned on to rock and roll. He’s turned off by racism. Truly, turned off by homelessness, joblessness. He’s one of us! He’s not one of those old guys that we can’t relate to, you know? I can’t believe it.”
Clinton and Gore would continue to show up for MTV during their firsts term, including a much-discussed moment during a 1994 MTV Town Hall in which Clinton opined on his preferences between boxers and briefs (“usually briefs”).
Although the Clinton-MTV partnership ebbed amid the Lewinsky scandal and a fresh frost of cynicism over Clinton’s centrist moves, the youthful idealism of the 1992 campaign feels oddly relevant after last week’s Democratic successes.
For a fascinating 2016 reflection by Tabita Soren on the long-term political impact of the MTV-Clinton moment, read her New York Times op-ed “Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of MTV.”
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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